The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“Coloring” the Modernist Bookshelf: The Case of Jean Rhys

Ruchi Mundeja
Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi


We are now at a point in literary studies where the modernist bookshelf is certainly being overhauled, with a scrupulous eye to bleaching it of prejudicial coloring. However, acts of restitution can sometimes be self-fulfilling, especially as guided by the imperatives of creolizing bookshelves. In other words, the line between coloring and uncoloring wears worryingly thin as writers who lend color to the canon are incorporated in the name of an allegedly colorblind academic and intellectual expansionism but where their slippages and departures from the (white) modernist canon become both the criterion and the casualty. This essay takes Jean Rhys’s “The Day they Burned the Books” (1960) as entry point to argue that in this later story as in her interwar writings, the writer ironizes processes of circulation and incorporation, and hence offers commentary on academic and literary circuits, and indeed her own resurrected currency within these. If modernism is seen as that originary moment of miscegenated literary and cultural landscapes in the west, and given that new modernist studies continues to draw on that prospect of coloration, then Rhys’s story comes back to haunt those claims of color-transcendence, or alternately an active coloration, by locating the debate in the color-fraught colonial Caribbean. This later story approaches changing literary structures via Rhys’s brushes with the modernist moment, whether contemporaneous or current and in the process nudges us to think about the curatorial procedures that undergird and ‘color’ the idealized democratic conception of sites such as libraries.

Keywords Bookshelves / “The Day they Burned the Books” / Jean Rhys / color / gender /new modernist studies

Books are like thatjust somebody stuffing you up.
                                                 Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
Definitions belonged to the definersnot the defined.
                                                 Toni Morrison, Beloved

Straining at Cardboard Binds: Jean Rhys on our Bookshelves

We go to bookshelves for stories, but the bookshelf also tells its own story—of emphasis, selection, sifting, inclusion, exclusion. An archive is eloquent and silent, liberating and prescriptive, un-coloring and colored, cultural machinery and “outside the machine” in varied measure.1 Jean Rhys’s corpus compellingly probes these anomalies. To examine the idea of bookshelves through the prism of her fiction seems apposite, since she engages so directly with what we read and from what location. The treachery of the reading process is something the writer knew first-hand—after all, she was herself the “read” when she first arrived in England from her native Caribbean island of Dominica.2 Rhys’s women are often readers. We can think of actual readers like Anna Morgan in Voyage in the Dark or Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, but I am also using reading in the extended sense. There are the haunting images of Sasha Jansen, from Good Morning, Midnight, reading the prohibitive facades of allegedly respectable bourgeois establishments, or Julia Martin reading the insidious workings of patriarchal machinery as reflected in the sleazy wallpapers papering her shifting hotel locations. But Rhys, as the above epigraph from Voyage in the Dark (1934) suggests, is also deeply skeptical about scripts, including the scripting of writers’ legacies and afterlives. Peter Kalliney, in an important essay on the many recastings of Rhys, notes “Describing the post-Sargasso Rhys as something of an industry, rather than an individual author, is another way of saying that we can usefully understand her reincarnation as a negotiation of intellectual property rights” (419). Speaking of her writing career, Rhys records her own awareness of intellectual and cultural shifts in an uncannily anticipatory way. Indicating the impact of occlusions, discoveries, and resurrections on her place in the literary world, she wrote to her daughter Maryvonne Moerman in 1949, “I am very astonished that the BBC like my work (especially Good Morning [sic]) but it seems they thought I was dead which of course would make a great difference” (Letters 61).

These instances bespeak a writer who is aware of the hierarchies of the bookshelf. Given that Jean Rhys is one of the writers who has in the past few decades been fervently welcomed into the spaces of the modernist bookshelf, her emplacement within it cannot be divorced from her own (fictional) commentaries on the subject of intellectual heritage and canonicity. We are now at a point in literary studies where the modernist bookshelf is being overhauled, with a scrupulous eye to bleaching it of a prejudicial coloring. However, acts of restitution can sometimes be self-fulfilling, especially as guided by the imperatives of creolizing bookshelves. In other words, the line between coloring and uncoloring wears worryingly thin as writers who lend color to the canon are incorporated in the name of an allegedly colorblind academic and intellectual expansionism . Their slippages and departures from the (white) modernist canon become both the criterion and the casualty. This essay thus foregrounds Jean Rhys not only as a key actor in that move to uncolour, or alternately to creolize, the academic bookshelf but also as a commentator on the occasional narcissism of this process. With her understanding of precarious positionings, the writer ironizes her own place in the expanding modernist library.

Through the impasses of her fiction, Rhys nudges us to think of the occasional self-validating nature of the current desire to democratize bookshelves by tempering their whiteness. The imperative to welcome writers like Rhys into the pluralistic embraces of our transforming archives is meant to accord them place. But in the process, do we write the “placelessness” in them out of the script? In other words, coloring the archives as a move to depart from the erstwhile cultural imperialism of the west can in turn be a path riddled with the dangers of an incorporatory overdrive that nullifies its intent. A story from the later phase of Rhys’s writing career, “The Day They Burned the Books” (1960), reflects on these dangers from a colonial place and time. In its many allusions to the undemocratic functioning of libraries in the colonial context, the story resonates with current attempts to unwhiten modernist cultural and literary sites . Rhys’s interwar fiction already interrogates the modernist milieu with its many asides in the margins of the metropolitan center. If modernism is seen as that originary moment of miscegenated literary and cultural landscapes in the west, then Rhys’s story comes back to haunt those claims of color-transcendence, or alternately an active coloration, by shifting the debate to the color-fraught colonial Caribbean. This later story approaches changing literary structures via Rhys’s brushes with the modernist moment, whether contemporaneous or current.

But why bring color into something so above it as a library? There is a certain freedom and unfettered joy of discovery that forms for the avid reader the idealized conception of a library. The field of postcolonial studies would underline, however, that the library was often the most visible means of coloring the world-view of the colonized. As I will argue more sustainedly through Rhys, if cultural sites are material edifices colored over by hegemonies, then the instantiation of their modernity coincides with their “monumentality” in the colonial instance.3 So this essay probes the question of whiteness in modernist studies by examining the other side of a “paper empire”an entire cultural repertoire of hegemonic and binary constructionsand turns that lens on current debates in modernist studies to suggest a vestigial centrism (Richards 4). In her 1992 essay “Playing in the Dark,” Toni Morrison, writing about the United States, muses that “racism has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division . . . . It seems that it . . . has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before” (63). The bookshelf in Rhys’s story operates on the cusp of “disguise” and “display” of racism to exemplify patterns common to the institutional structures of new modernist studies. The story, scanning modes of inclusion and exclusion, marks a continuity with Rhys’s visceral representations of outsiderness as set against an equal awareness of the excesses of insiderness in the interwar period.

My interest in “The Day they Burned the Books” pivots around its provocative potential as commentary on literary archives fundamental to the instantiation of modernism as literary category. This essay is not a piece about how we read but what we read, or are made to read, whether it be native ingestion of colonial libraries as in Rhys’s Caribbean, or the increasingly global trajectories of our current modernist ones. Rather, Rhys, a figure at the center of the compellingly probed intersections between modernism and postcolonialism, never forgets the weight of libraries, the imprint of inscriptions, the authoritarian whiteness of scripts, the windowless confines of fiction’s cardboard houses. Rhys’s attentiveness crystallizes the danger of subsumption that might become a corollary to the revivalism of our current modernist study projects, especially as regards resistant or conflictual strands.4 While new modernist studies have undoubtedly expanded the gallery of writers for scholars in the area, the fact that it remains, on the strength of her work at least, hard to incorporate Rhys into available paradigms should also make us think a little more about the limits of those paradigms.5

The much-discussed field of new modernist studies speaks to an urgent need to “uncolour” modernism by “coloring” the modernist library. As modernist studies self-consciously performs its inclusionary gestures, the laurels for this shift and for cosmopolitanizing the modernist archive rest with the west. Jean Rhys’s work offers its own take on cosmopolitanism, whether of spaces or bookshelves. The writer’s interwar work is haunted by vignettes that, in the heyday of modernism, counterbalance the spectacle of an increasingly cosmopolitan west with parochial tensions that challenge such a project. There is a deeply ironic moment in her 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight where Sasha and her companions “stop under the lamp-post to guess nationalities” (39). Rhys’s fiction evokes the always slippery terrain of belongingness and non-belongingness where the yearning to belong also recognizes the tendentious effects of incorporation. Perhaps, then, keeping that tension between belonging and non-belonging in mind, the lamplight can be turned on Rhys’s place on our literary grids as well.

Given her placelessness, Rhys can be productively seen as a “renter” in Michel de Certeau’s sense of the word. Certeau argues that “the procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle act of renters who know how to insinuate their countless differences into the dominant text” (xxii). Jean Rhys and her heroines are undoubtedly renters in this sense , and the suggestion of unsettledness extends to her contingent placement within the dominant discourses of modernism and postcolonialism. As a renter, Rhys’s authorial imprint emerges as insurrectionist forays into modernist spaces; she brings into view the reactionary backrooms of modernism’s emancipatory salons, juxtaposing the plenitude of the voyage out with the depredations of the voyage in, pitting rooms against roomlessness. The renter position and the halfness that accompanies it become ways to rethink not only the modernist landscape but also currently dominant modernist studies trajectories, our housing of the unhoused which nevertheless has not shaken off its paternalistic Western scaffolding. The self-critical turn in modernist studies is enriched by homing in on the scribblings of the renters in the margins. In their transitory mode of existence, Rhys’s protagonists encounter the cultural iconography and cliques of the European world with sharp parenthetical asides. Marya Zelli of Quartet (1928), one of Rhys’s vagrants, is wooed as an interesting addition to the Heidlers’ cosmopolitan adventurism. Marya, however, remains uncomfortably aware that their bohemian credentials are also strategies of containment. For instance, Lois Heidler arranges the characters who populate the Parisian cultural canvas: “She liked explaining, classifying, fitting the inhabitants . . . into their proper places in the scheme of things. The Beautiful Young Men, the Dazzlers . . . the Freaks who never would do anything, the Freaks who just possibly might” (48). The recoil from the classificatory drive to pin down and label is at the heart of Rhys’s examination of human pathology. As the protagonist of Rhys’s short story “Outside the Machine” fears, dominant social machinery will remind her that “My world is a stable, decent world. If you withhold information, or if you confuse me by jumping from one category to another, I can be extremely disagreeable” (192). A writer whose writings have so much to insert in the margins of artistic and cultural currents can be read as effecting mutations in these currents. Rhys’s fiction has as much to say about consumption as about production, as she is to my mind a writer acutely aware of how both the authorial imprint and persona are subject to processes of circulation and distribution, which is why the subject of bookcases can well be approached through her fictional probings.

In my traversing of the above-mentioned parallel tracksbelonging and non-belonging, production and consumption, classification and spillage —I propose that the concept of “renter” can be juxtaposed with Pierre Bourdieu’s theorization of “habitus” to address Rhys’s challenge to classification. Bourdieu explains the role of classification as follows:

The habitus is both the generative principle of objectively classifiable judgements and the system of classification (principium divisionis) of these practices. It is in the relationship between the two capacities which define the habitus, the capacity to produce classifiable practices and works, and the capacity to differentiate and appreciate these practices and products (taste), that the represented social world, i.e., the space of life-styles, is constituted. (170)

Bourdieu in fact turns his attention specifically to the world of the “initiates” when he speaks of the canonical in terms strikingly relevant to the present discussion: “Hence the incessant revisions, reinterpretations and rediscoveries which the learned of all religions of the book perform on their canonical texts; since the levels of ‘reading’ designate hierarchies of readers, it is necessary and sufficient to change the hierarchy of readings in order to overturn the hierarchy of readers” (229). As mentioned in my discussion on the production-consumption dyad, Rhys’s work, apart from the possibilities it releases for us as literary scholars in overturning hierarchies, compellingly reveals the writer’s own direct percipience of these hierarchical procedures.

Bourdieu’s description of the habitus as “not only a structuring structure” but as also “a structured structure” pertains to how the notion of habitus as both process and system usefully illuminates the domain of ‘cultural capital’ that this essay in its spotlighting of modernism, modernist studies, and bookshelves traverses (170). Through my reading of “The Day They Burned the Books,” I will simultaneously examine these three habitus. All three are cultural sites that fluctuate between ossification and diffuseness, and examining the alternation between system and process reveals the centrism lurking in the dispersed trajectories of new modernist studies. At the heart of Rhys’s story, “The Day They Burned the Books,” is a bookshelf that faces the prospect of ravaging and incineration. Book-burning is a deeply conservative gesture, and the story’s ambivalence about Mrs. Sawyer’s plan records itself in the children’s act of rescuing two books in the final moment of the story. Yet burning rooms and estates are not alien to Rhys’s oeuvre, where they often suggest an exorcism. The violence ingrained in Rhys’s rewritings is directed not only at exclusionary systems but also at the stranglehold of grids that level into assimilable components. Positioning this scene as counterpoint to poised arguments about the cosmopolitan bookshelf, such as that in Amitav Ghosh’s essay “The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcase,” the violent conflict over books in Rhys’s story chafes against a finessed literary cosmopolitanism that substitutes inclusion for exclusion, but where asymmetries continue to lurk. The global canvas of new modernist studies offers an expanded gallery of writers, yet as a field we are still far from exorcizing the whiteness of the bookshelf. “The Day They Burned the Books” offers vignettes that suggest rage against authoritarianism, including this canonical coloring of the world. Mrs. Sawyer’s desire to tear into the library arises because she has been encoded—placed and unplaced, if you will—as native exotica, by the volumes on that bookshelf. Certeau is useful here in stating the equation between bookshelves and the experience of (reductive) embodiment that spurs Mrs. Sawyer’s fury. The Law, as Certeau designates it, “constantly writes itself on bodies. It engraves itself on parchments made from the skin of its subjects . . . It makes its book out of them” (140).

The paradox of the placed and placeless is not only a paradigm one can use for Rhys’s characters and Rhys herself, but also a lens to view libraries themselves as an expression of white dominance. Books travel and circulate (Mr. Sawyer’s, for example, arrive by Royal Mail shipment): their trajectories are perambulatory and diffuse, and yet they are also organized into ready-made grids, already in place in the form of bookshelves that rank and classify by subject. The way we weave them into institutional sites such as reading libraries and the way they are incorporated into course curriculums colors their consumption. Are libraries spaces of order and containment, where books are cataloged and settle on the shelves in their respective taxonomies, or of provocation and discomfort where we are led into unexplored realms and spaces? As B. Venkat Mani usefully points out, as sites that are inseparable from power formations, libraries are spaces of “orderly organization and disorderly contention” (16). For many, bookshelves are sanctuaries, ways to escape constricting power structures.They are also, if one were to invoke Ghosh’s essay, little worlds of cosmopolitan finesse, displaying our cultural credentials to the world at large.The private bookshelf in Rhys’s story serves a similar function, exhibiting Mr. Sawyer’s, and by extension Eddie’s, cultural credentials. The Sawyer bookshelves, though private, are on the cusp of the public, and underline how colonial structures are reflected in colonial libraries. The interplay between dispersal and return that these book journeys reveal is a mirror image of some of our current academic shifts. As Mani indicates in his concept “Bibliomigrancy,” echoing Bourdieu’s more general concept of the habitus, “The house of books,' or Bibliothek (library), is far from a neutral space. Libraries are sites rife with the politics of literacy and sanctioned illiteracy, historical contingencies that condition accumulation and classification, circulation and distribution, patronage and accession” (16). What is striking about Rhys’s approach to this configuration is the materiality she gives the canonical weight of white institutions like the colonial library. The look, the feel, the rub, the weight, and—laterthe tearing and mauling, all point to material processes through which Rhys interrupts the notional cultural capaciousness of libraries. That is, if the ideal premise of learning-disseminating sites such as libraries be a democratic one, then the violent egocentrism of its curator, Mr. Sawyer, embodies the subject on whom libraries selectively bestow honorifics that perpetuate unequal structures of cultural capital.

Proprietary Rights, Rites of Passage: Reading “The Day They Burned the Books”

A reading of “The Day They Burned the Books” plunges us straightaway into questions of proprietorship of literary repositories. The story begins by dwelling on the strangeness of its proprietor, Mr. Sawyer. As the narrator records with puzzlement, as an Englishman residing in the Caribbean, he occupies none of the more predictable positions: planter, doctor, lawyer, banker, government functionary, nor one of the “resident romantics” who are drawn to the Caribbean by the beauty of the landscape.6 Mr. Sawyer, who in his indolence lacks all the brisk attributes of the colonialist as producer, discharges his energies in one project: the library. He has built a room at the back of the house, and the book-shelves that line the room gradually fill as Mr. Sawyer collects his packages regularly from the Royal Mail steamer. This is the role that falls to him in the story, this uncouth, uncultured man “who hadn’t an ‘h’ in his composition” (151)that of librarian who Eurocentrically inscribes “the ‘terra incognita, the empty or the wasted land . . . whose archives must be filled out” (Bhabha 246) by importing and arranging books. That Rhys should carve a character so entirely boorish as the acquirer and transmitter of Anglo-European culture to the colonies deepens skepticism towards cultural institutions he might appear to represent.

Where do we locate Mr. Sawyer? He is neither quite producer nor quite consumer. He is a rather dubitable curator, going by the young narrator’s testimony. Rhys keeps these ambiguities central in the plot. Mr. Sawyer’s cultural project, aided by the Royal Mail and thereby implicated in the oceanic networks that formed the Caribbean, underlines the role of transoceanic movements in carrying cargo with a distinctly white cast to its ideas. Hilary McD Beckles reminds us that Columbus’s arrival introduced to the area “invisible cargoes”: “an economic ideology which was not as yet labelled nor understood as commercial capitalism; the ideology of racism which at that time was not clearly articulated . . . . the social ideology of patriarchy which assumed the superior political and intellectual capacity of men over women . . . an expansionist, imperialist consciousness” (785). Mr. Sawyer’s bookshelf iterates and maintains this process.

If the library-in-making as culturally edifying heralds modernity, then Mr. Sawyer’s conservative and xenophobic attitudes severely compromise that advance. As someone who hails from England and has chosen to stay on and marry a “colored” woman in the West Indies (his intensely color-coded consciousness entails a repeated use of the word colored in the story), his bookshelf could have been a progressive site of mixture, buttressing the cosmopolitanizing leverage of libraries. Mr. Sawyer, however, reveals himself as a limited purveyor of that ideal of literary-cultural hybridity. His approach opposes the generative miscegenation Ghosh evokes in his study of the bookshelf: “Everywhere these stories went they were freely and fluently adapted to local circumstances. Indeed, in a sense the whole point of the stories was their translatabilitythe dispensable and inessential nature of their locations. What held them together and gave them their appeal was not where they happened but how—the narrative, in other words” (8). Ghosh’s description highlights the interplay between the global and the local. Yet Ghosh’s language for using the library, beginning with metaphors of “pillaging” and raiding by an avid young reader (3, 2), echoes the materializing technique seen in “The Day.” Insurrection and raiding find their way into Rhys’s story too, but while Ghosh’s essay makes a sophisticated and erudite argument about postcolonial cosmopolitanism, Rhys’s story more violently etches the rampaging against a citadel-in-making.

In the second part of the story, as the books are being destroyed under the fury of Mrs. Sawyer, the narrator’s glimpse into what constitutes the library illuminates the colonial ideology carried by the bookshelves and the principle of selection that supports the archive. The selection runs from books that dwell on the English world to books that, written from an imperialist viewpoint, are in a fractious and hegemonic relationship with the West Indies, most notably Froude’s The English in the West Indies. The bookshelf becomes an extension of Mr. Sawyer’s exclusionary attitudes, such as in the way his “going on” about daffodils connects in the narrator’s mind to the poems she is expected to regurgitate in praise of daffodils (153). Sue Thomas reads the story as reprising the whiteness of the colonial curriculum through the play on “daffodilization,” in which Wordsworth’s paean to the daffodil stands as a signifier of the colonialist insistence on “inculcating English aesthetic tastes and an English-affiliated subjectivity” (566).

Since Thomas raises the question of cultural indoctrination as a way to entrench colonization within a national imaginary, I want to turn briefly now to the subject of legacies as bearing an ideological imprint that bookshelves either continue or interrupt. Rhys’s treatment of these questions, whether in “The Day they Burned the Books” or in Wide Sargasso Sea , is never straightforward, and this in turn should trouble her incorporation into available (modernist) networks. Her work constitutes a commentary on incomplete heritages and lineages, just as the children’s apparently random curation at the end of “The Day”their running away with a book eachis both an attempt to preserve “lineage” and a recognition of the narrowness of it. Given that traces and inheritances are so much at the heart of racial, colonial, and literary politics, Wide Sargasso Sea, a text widely read through those lenses, can shed light on the matter of the color of the colonial bookshelf.7 In the attention to Antoinette’s in-betweenness as a Creole, the fluctuating attitudes of the English husband have been less thoroughly plumbed to indicate how the colonial library of Jane Eyre’s prequel creates, as it were, Rochester. His carrying out of the diktats of his father seems at best desultory in the early part of the novel; in fact, he seems to reject any implication in the power structures of imperialism. But at his desk in Granbois, amidst certain moth-eaten, decrepit, classics of Western literature, he moves from detachment to accommodation. Rhys’s would-be Rochester frames his letter to his father in the looming shadow of an imperial library that is also residual. While he defers posting the letter, the text speaks of his compliance with his father’s wishes.8 Among the volumes of Byron and Walter Scott, there is also one incomplete title, “Life and Letters of…”—a deft Rhysian touch that underlines the stranglehold of inheritances but also tears at them (46). More pertinently, the incomplete title is symptomatic of halfness: the ellipsis is that moment of suspension between the infinite translatability, the transoceanic ambulation of books, and yet their prescriptive circuitries, much like Rhys’s own placed placelessness, “the white hush between two sentences , ” as fellow Caribbean Derek Walcott writes in his poem “Jean Rhys” (qtd. in Mukherjee 107). Technologies of inscription accompany the transition—here, Rochester’s—from rentership to ownership.

Evoking the tangled mesh of affiliations and disaffiliations, Rhys’s “The Day” reprises these negotiations. In the story, Eddie, the child of an Englishman and a colored West Indian woman, makes an uneasy affiliation with paternal legacies by claiming possession of the library. Eddie, the possible bearer of a fluid identity, is the spitting image of his father, yet unlike his father, Eddie does not idealize the imperial center. His territorialism, however, resembles that of his father by manifesting itself vis-à-vis the library: “‘My room,’ Eddie called it. ‘My books,’ he would say, ‘my books’” (154). Eddie’s in-betweenness is reflected in distancing himself from, and indeed challenging, the cultural chauvinism of his father, yet preserving his legacy and claiming his proprietorship over it. He evinces hatred for his mother as she prepares to exorcize the site: “He rushed at her . . . shrieking, ‘Now I’ve got to hate you too. Now I hate you too’” (155). Saving libraries is, from the point of view of an allegedly uncolored humanism, beyond question, but at the same time, that cultural sites reflect curatorial asymmetries is also something the story makes us reckon with. The utopian “spectroscopic” conception of bookshelves is brought up against the rites of passage that color cultural legitimation, built as these are, decidedly on the evidence of this story, around privilege and non-privilege.9

Rhys’s story, by making the library a work-in-progress by a figure whose cultural legitimacy is in doubt, reminds us that color, power and culture are inextricably tied in this narrative. Mrs. Sawyer hovers on the peripheries of the library’s habitus, as if her colored status renders her a votary rather than a consumer of the spectacle. When the children dive in one quiet afternoon to borrow a book, Mrs. Sawyer is ever watchful, nursing her exclusion: “But Mrs Sawyer was not asleep. She put her head in at the door and looked at us, and I knew that she hated the room and hated the books” (152). In the measure of her otherness—for example, the references to soucriants and obeah—Mrs. Sawyer is the inscribed of Froudacity, placed at the edges of Western articulation and that which Western enunciatory practices seek to classify. Chosen “carefully” by Mr. Sawyer as “a nicely educated colored woman,” but who does not “smell right” to him now, she is locked in an antagonistic relationship to the library room her husband has built (152). After her husband’s death, on the day that she prepares to perform the book burning, the narrator uses the word pulls repeatedly to describe the way Mrs. Sawyer violently takes down the volumes from their perch, an undoing of an incident when her husband “pulled Mrs Sawyer’s hair” during a dinner party while announcing “‘Not a wig, you see’” (152). In showing Mrs. Sawyer as stripped of her human dignity in the husband’s performance of some “obscure, sacred English joke,” the writer violently intermeshes the Olympian realms of erudition with the invasive brutalities of racism (152).

The hushed privacy of the room, its sacred white otherness, provokes invasion once her husband is dead. The balance of the story shifts again as it examines the deep coloring of Mrs. Sawyer’s hate. While her husband is alive, Mrs. Sawyer does not demonstrate her hate. While his is malignant and naked, hers manifests its nursed venom after his death , in the room that was his enclave. As the narrator tells us, “Well, I knew bad temper (I had often seen it), I knew rage, but this was hate” (154-55). That “flicker” of animosity is at its most intense when she handles books written by women: “By a flicker in Mrs Sawyer’s eyes, I knew that worse than men who wrote books were women who wrote books” (155). The distinction is significant, for while rage might have a transformative teleological charge, hate is more self-spending and solipsistic. Sianne Ngai discusses how “anger advances the redressing of perceived injustices through retaliation” (27), while making a distinction with certain other emotions that are not as “goal-oriented” or allied to political action (26). Etching this moment of (counter)action on the part of Mrs. Sawyer, the story gives us scant room however to make broad generalizations about women’s agency, since coloration permeates that arena too. While the retaliatory impels Mrs. Sawyer, her hatred becomes a rhythm, marking her own capitulation to it. The story stops short of subsumption into broad categories of counter-reading-or-writing. This is the sometimes frustrating, sometimes fructifying, nascence of Rhys’s work, one that certainly exacerbates a suspicion of taxonomies (69).

Mr. Sawyer’s fascination with the other, followed by a phobic recoil from it and Mrs. Sawyer’s focused archival loathing, cohere around the “patriarchive,” a term I borrow from Trevor Hope (69). The story, in making Mr. Sawyer the collector and Eddie the primary reader, shows the male contract as sealed in this seat of culture. The father-son dyad, united in its peripheralization of Mrs. Sawyer, almost makes this a male ritual until one remembers that there is also the girl narrator, Eddie’s companion and fellow literary sojourner. She expresses disappointment at the dull look of the volume she rescues, but she also describes with tactile intensity the moment of retrieving at least a couple of books set to be burnt or discarded: “It felt warm and alive” (155). The narrator tells us that the rescued books were Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Maupassant’s Fort Comme La Mort. Existing criticism on the story has analyzed Rhys’s choice of these two books. In his introduction to the novel, Edward Said describes Kim as “an overwhelmingly male novel” (12). Judith L. Raiskin, discussing Kim as falling into Eddie’s hands, points out that the pages torn away from the book would in fact be the ones revealing “Kim’s true racial identity” (126). This could in turn throw light on Eddie’s own anxieties about his racial placement/nonplacement. This missing beginning resonates with the missing end of the book title in Wide Sargasso Sea: it is another version of the “loss of the patronymic” (Spivak 314). Further, despite its jingoistic themes, Kim poses challenges; in her discussion of Rhys’s story Raiskin points out that for Abdul JanMohammed Kim is an “example of a truly syncretic character” (qtd. in Raiskin 126).

The narrator, on the other hand, finds herself with Maupassant’s book about a “sexually dissident” male artist (Kalliney 416). The narrator’s phenomenologically experienced and described partaking of the cultural riches of the library thus remains ambivalently poised again at the borders of inclusion/exclusion. One recalls here Anna Morgan of Voyage in the Dark reading Emile Zola’s Nana till Maudie enters to place it in a moralistic economy by labeling it a “dirty book” (9). Even as one might want to view Anna’s reading choices as an attempt to challenge (cardboard) binds, we are stopped in our tracks by this, the menace contained in cardboard worlds; admitting to feeling “frightened,” Anna says: “It wasn’t what I was reading, it was the look of the dark, blurred words that gave me that feeling” (9). As I mentioned at the beginning, Rhys is as astute a commentator on the subject of literary consumer as on producer, and the question of autonomy that hangs over both. “The Day” to that extent can be read as a continuation of Rhys’s interwar writings that brood at times on the straitjacketing element in books/bookshelves. The two books that are retrieved in “The Day” reprise that ambivalence, as the sheer tactility of the narrator’s joy at the act of rescue is juxtaposed against the circuitries that the two books themselves are colored by, Kim with its sinuously problematic negotiations on belonging and the world of the Bohemia in Maupassant’s novel , a world not unfamiliar to Rhys, a milieu that she excoriated for its gendered hierarchies in her interwar novel Quartet.

While francophone and anglophone colonial legacies of the Caribbean are evoked through these archival traces, Rhys plays on the part-absences in these overwhelming presences. The potentially pulsating, peregrinating, anarchy of the written word held in balance against the cardboard containments of the bookshelf inflect the monumentality of the colonial bookshelf on which modernism founds itself and on which, I argue, new modernist studies founders. While the expansions it has effected are valuable, modernist studies does itself a disservice if it becomes so much of a generic formation that it acquires another shade of incorporatory, imperializing, centripetalism.

“The Day” offers quick, shifting montages built around the bookshelf that encapsulate the derangements of power and the dissimulations of powerlessness, the exclusionary regalia of whiteness, the veiled incursions of so-called others, and the pathologies and neuroses of both. The story pits the apparent stillness and separateness of the library against the everyday ceremonies of racism and gendering that transpire around it. There are enough instances in history that highlight how the library as institution has been used in the service of racially and nationally inflected misanthropies. Feminist studies bears testimony to how libraries need to be overhauled. If we look at some of the names given to bookshops or presses that sought to dismantle the maleness of the canon, they tell a story. Sisterwrite and The Second Shelf in London, and Kali and Zubaan here in India, are a few examples. The names underline the exclusionary mechanisms that these enterprises target. “The striptease of our humanism” begins here, with the unveiling of the hidden or theatricalized cultural misanthropies that reside in cultural institutions (Sartre 22; see below). It is significant that in Rhys’s story the question of color and the world of books come together. She leaves us with no elbow room for elevated, Olympian, aesthetic perspectives, as the books are quite literally mired in and dragged through the tussles of power linked to race and authority in the Caribbean. In the introduction to Postcolonial Whiteness, Alfred J. López notes what he identifies as a curious absence in postcolonial studies on “whiteness as a subject position,” and pitches for a more pointed interrogation of hegemonic forms of whiteness to unravel “the colonial unconscious” (6). While taking note of López’s concerns, one would do well to turn to such examinations of the colonial unconscious as do exist, famously Jean Paul-Sartre’s Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The reason I am reminded of this piece of anti-colonial self-specularity is because it also resounds with my reading of Rhys’s story. The corporeality of “the big, glossy volumes” stripped down from the shelves by Mrs. Sawyer in Rhys’s story hovers close to Sartre’s portrayal of Europe, “the fat, pale, continent” in the throes of the “the strip-tease of our humanism” (22). That the rooting out of the rotundness born of illegitimate engorgement that Sartre believes the white world needs to perform should be aligned with the weight of the library in Rhys’s rendering is both troubling and significant.

In Mr. Sawyer’s domiciliary habitation of the Caribbean, so qualified and yet so aggressive, it is significant that his habitus, if any, becomes that room with books that he has built. Bourdieu’s formulation, in defining “distinction” as achieved through “classifiable judgements,” encompasses enough to throw light on all the fields this essay has probed (170). It might seem counter-intuitive to be using this prism of classification to reflect on the current modernist studies landscape, engaged as it is in acts of dismantling. For that, I want to turn finally to my second epigraph , from Beloved : “Definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined.” As “definitions” change and the voice of the “defined” is factored in, indeed courted in some instances, do the “definers” also change? While the transnationalism of the contemporary modernist landscape has enriched the field immeasurably, Fanon’s tabernacles of validation, the epicenter of seismic academic shifts, remain more or less unchanged. In its concern with renewing the field through global provenance, efforts at inclusion seems to share that primal search for resuscitation abroad embedded in modernism’s own fatigue with Western forms.

As Rhys herself is re-worlded many times over yet continues to defy any sanguine placement within categories, attending more closely to what Rhys says about the modernist avant-garde and its spaces in Quartet—about rooms or rather "roomlessness,” as I have called it elsewhere—illuminates the tension between inclusion and incorporation in institutional efforts to broaden the modernist field. By refracting these efforts through Rhys’s later, postcolonial, stories like “The Day They Burned the Books.” scholars might actually do more to uncolor the modernist bookcase. Instead of extending to writers like Rhys a secure place on the shelf, seeing how she displaces modernist tenets and tropes might be a more fitting tribute to her as a writer. It would also signify our willingness to confront the cultural insolvency to which her work leads us as opposed to the cultural plenitude that seems to be the bequest of modernism to new modernist studies. Traces, scraps, fragments, shreds, vestiges, and cinders pervade Rhyss textual universe. Mosaics are compelling, but the fractures that Rhys’s work effects in accreting patterns helps us rethink that line between pluralization and stockpiling that we might be close to treading in new modernist studies. As Jean Rhys now frequently is one of the authors coloring our modernist bookshelves, her housing there should not be at the cost of bleaching these expatriated strands from her work.


1. “Outside the Machine” is the title of a short story written by Jean Rhys. It is yet another expression in Rhys’s oeuvre of the acutely phenomenological and phobic experience of being fitted into codified frameworks.

2. For debates related to Rhys’s Creole positioning, see Thomas. For discourses surrounding Creoleness, see O'Callaghan.

3. Lefebrve 220. Lefebvre’s gloss bears on this argument by not only urging that monumental space demands “consensus” but also arguing that “the element of repression in it and the element of exaltation could scarcely be disentangled; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the repressive element was metamorphosed into exaltation.” (220).     

4. For an overview of these debates, see Parry.

5. This essay returns to the pioneering work done by Mao and Walkowitz in Bad Modernisms. They locate “badness,” or “the history of the modernist affront” as they term it, variously translated as dissidence, cosmopolitan amplitude, anti-imperial sentiment, as inhering in modernist productions (3). These inaugural moments in the horizontal and vertical expansion of modernism as field, geared towards geographic sprawl and plenitude, seem nevertheless to reify as much as open up the discipline. To counter any neo-hermetic drift in modernist studies, a more contingent approach might be useful.

6. Rhys, “The Day They Burned the Books,” Complete Short Stories 151. All citations are from Rhys’s Collected Short Stories and will be made parenthetically in the text.

7. One is reminded of the powerful voices from the Caribbean world noting the exaltation of the West as the “tabernacle,” as Fanon puts it, of culture and knowledge (13). Fanon’s representation of the stranglehold of Eurocentric paternalism, so allied to a viscerally, phenomenologically, experienced entrapment within color binaries, finds an echo in George Lamming’s use of the word “tabernacle” when he turns to the curriculum colonial children experienced. Lamming evokes a halo of sanction surrounding this curriculum that implicitly responds to Macaulay’s "single shelf of a good European library”:
       The West Indian’s education was imported in much the same way that flour and butter are imported from Canada. Since the cultural negotiation between England and the natives, and England had acquired, somehow, the divine right to organise the nation’s reading, it is to be expected that England’s export of literature would be English…. So the examinations which would determine the Trinidadian’s future in the Civil Services, imposed Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, and Jane Austen and George Eliot, and the whole tabernacle of names. (27)
8. Apart from Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” which discusses this issue, another essay that reads this scene is Hope.

9. Soyinka 105. Soyinka uses the term “spectroscopic” to capture the uneven globalism in a putatively cosmopolitan London nevertheless preoccupied with color: indeed, phobically so.

Works Cited

Beckles, Hilary McD. “Capitalism, Slavery and Caribbean Modernity.” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 4, 1997, pp. 777-789.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice, Harvard UP, 1984.

Certeau, Michel de . The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Randall, U of California P, 1984.

Delsandro, Erica Gene, editor. Women Making Modernism. UP of Florida, 2020.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, Pluto, 2008.

Ghosh, Amitav. “The March of the Novel through History: The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcase.” Kunapipi, vol. 19, no. 3, 1997, pp. 1-13.

Hope, Trevor. “Revisiting the Imperial Archive: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and the Decomposition of Englishness.” College Literature, vol 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 51-73.     

Kalliney, Peter. “Jean Rhys: Left-Bank Modernist as Postcolonial Intellectual.” The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, edited by Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, Oxford UP, 2012, pp. 413-432.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. U of Michigan P, 1992.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Blackwell, 1991.

López, Alfred J., editor. Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire. State U of New York P, 2005.

Mani, B Venkat. Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture and Germany’s Pact with Books. Fordham UP, 2017.     

Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca Walkowitz, editors. Bad Modernisms. Duke UP, 2006.     

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004.

---. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage, 1993.

Macaulay, Thomas B. Minute on Education. 1835., pp. 1-10.

Mukherjee, Ankhi. What is a Classic? : Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon. Stanford UP, 2014.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2005.

O’Callaghan, Evelyn. Women Writing the West Indies, 1804-1939. Routledge, 2004.

Parry, Benita. “A Departure from Modernism: Stylistic Strategies in Modern Peripheral Literatures as Symptom, Mediation and Critique of Modernity.” The Bloomsbury Companion to Modernist Literature, edited by Ulrika Maude and Mark Nixon, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 461-493.  

Raiskin, Judith L. Snow on the Cane Fields: Women’s Writing and Creole Subjectivity. U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Rhys, Jean. The Collected Short Stories, introduced by Diana Athill. Norton, 1987.

---. Good Morning, Midnight. 1939. Penguin, 2000.

---. Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66. Edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. Penguin, 1985.

---. Quartet. 1928. Penguin, 2000.

---. Voyage in the Dark. 1934. Penguin, 2000.

---. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. Penguin, 1997.

Richards, Thomas. The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire. Verso, 1993.

Said, Edward W. Introduction. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Penguin, 1987, pp. 7-46.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Preface. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. Translated by Constance Farrington, Penguin, 2001.

Soyinka, Wole. “Telephone Conversation.” Cameroon Anthology of Poetry, edited by Bole Butake. Langaa Research and Publishing, 2013, p. 105.     

Spivak, Gayatri. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, Routledge, 2003, pp. 306-323.

Thomas, Sue. “Genealogies of Story in Jean Rhys’s ‘The Day they Burned the Books.’” Review of English Studies, vol. 72, no. 305, 2021, pp. 565-576.

---. The Worlding of Jean Rhys. Greenwood, 1999.

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